Sunday, May 26, 2013

St. Paul can't write

There.  I said it.

This has been irritating me for I don't even know how long.  I think I had already noticed it as a teenager, but I wasn't really paying attention.  But now I am an adult, and sometimes I am actually paying attention.  I remember learning another language, and scanning poetry (even in English), and having to read three and four and five times and then having that "Ohhhhhh..." moment.  So I dutifully read the epistle.  And then I read it again.  And again.  Today's, for example:


Brothers and sisters:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.
Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions,
knowing that affliction produces endurance,
and endurance, proven character,
and proven character, hope,
and hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?!

Those sentences are endless and totally impossible.  First of all, he uses more appositives than any writer I have ever seen.  I love appositives myself; dependent clauses, elaborate punctuation, periodic sentences - bring them on.  But when your appositives HAVE THEIR OWN APPOSITIVES, I think you have to accept that the reader has given up.  And I don't think the fact that he wrote in Latin is remotely an excuse for this sort of thing; I don't believe Paul was the only scriptural author to write in Latin.  (I suspect I am about to be authoritatively corrected on this point.  But I move blithely on.  I read a little bit of Latin.  No amount of inflection could excuse this sort of thing.)

So let's see, above, we start with...well, we start the entire passage with "Therefore."  That in itself seems like a mistake, to me.  Not that a sentence (or a Bible verse) can't ever start with "Therefore," just that it's an indication that the writer plans to challenge the reader right off the bat, and the writer should notice that fact and provide the reader with the tools necessary to follow an already compound point.  But does he?  HE DOES NOT.

He proceeds to, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  I'm following so far; all the bits of sentence are relevant to the things before and after.  However, I'm seeing some early warning signs - there are three prepositional phrases in just those two brief clauses, and at least one of the concepts ("peace with God") is fuzzy enough that, if the text continues on like that, the reader will lose all concrete meaning and just lapse into "I'm reading God stuff."  I note that I'm not saying I dispute that there could be peace with God, I just don't know what that would be.  Eternal bliss in God's presence?  The peace OF God "that surpasses all understanding"?  COMMUNION with God through repentance of all grave sin?  A good writer would end the sentence there ("...through our Lord Jesus Christ") and then circle back to clarify the "peace with God" bit.  What does Saint Paul do?

Oh.  He refuses to end the sentence at all.  Possibly ever.  Next we have: "through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand."  Again, we have a LOT of prepositional phrases per capita (four in that clause alone!), which is bad not because prepositions are bad things, but because each prepositional phrase requires the brain to process the meaning of the small phrase, and then return to the big clause and integrate the meaning into the whole.  When you start going insane on the prepositional phrases, the reader gets heavily bogged down.  Also, it starts to give the impression that the writer has lost his train of thought and is just wandering aimlessly.  And this example is a good one - so we've gained access BOTH "through Christ" AND "by faith" - apparently you need the faith to get to Christ, and then thereafter Christ to get to the grace.  (And don't we also believe that faith is obtained by grace?  Best not to go there.)  This is starting to become woefully attenuated.  Is it helping us to get to the major point of the sentence?  Is there a major point of the sentence?  Is the sentence about to be over?

Well, almost: "...and we boast in hope of the glory of God."  In ten words, three more prepositional phrases.  (You get the impression he had a bar bet with St. Barnabas or something.)  Nothing wrong with this clause overall, other than the fact that (a) as usual, removal of one or more prepositional phrases would only improve the clarity and impact ("we boast of the glory of God" - much better; don't even care that it changes the meaning a bit, as it's still true in any case) and (b) it has nothing whatsoever to do with the first 90% of the sentence.

Oh, wait...unless what he meant to say was (see how reading it the sixth time could help!), "We have been justified by faith.  And this has two results: first, we're able to boast about our hope to be part of the glory of God.  And second, we have peace with God [whatever that means] through Christ.  And there's actually a logical circle here - our justification by faith allows us to have peace through Christ, and it's through that same Christ that we receive our current grace - being part of the Christian community!"  Of course, that doesn't solve all the problems, because I had to chop out a few bits that really didn't scan (the through Christ/through whom/faith/faith).  And I readily grasp the inelegance of scriptural bullet points.  But if you're going to try to get across this many itty-bitty permutations of concepts, the reader could use all the formatting and syntactical help available.

But the mentally exhausted reader is not finished yet.  "Not only that [!], but we even boast of our afflictions" - OK, fine, but this is the first time you've mentioned afflictions.  Well, all right then - "knowing that affliction produces endurance" - no debate there - "and endurance, proven character" - sure, that makes sense - "and proven character, hope" - OK, now things are starting to break down.  How does proven character produce hope?  Hope that we'll behave well the next time, too?  That has some logical appeal, but is at odds with the Christian message (including St. Paul's), which tells us that virtue is the product not only of discipline but of grace, so we shouldn't take for granted that we've once and for all achieved virtue.  Therefore, it's entirely unclear what hope could be produced in us by the fact that our character is now "proven."

OK, moving on..."and hope does not disappoint" - all right, fine, if we assume that there's a logical meaning and source for that hope, I guess that would work - "because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."  WHAT???  You JUST said that the hope was PRODUCED BY this "proven character" business.  And THEN you said that hope does not disappoint BECAUSE of the love of God poured out into our hearts.  WHAT DO THOSE THINGS HAVE TO DO WITH ONE ANOTHER?  This is where the massgoer sitting in the pew drifts into a lazy trance of "more of that God stuff."  And with good reason.  Yes, of course, we could fill this logical gap in with generic bits of Christian theology - such as, proven character is virtue, and virtue is a gift, and one of the fruits of virtue could be hope (I guess - I've never experienced a significant uptick in hopefulness with an increase in self-discipline, but let's assume), and the gift of virtue is prompted by God's great love, being poured into our hearts along with those virtues.  Plus, the Holy Spirit is the mediator.  Q.E.D.

Fine.  BUT THE TEXT DOESN'T SAY THAT.  It doesn't even fairly IMPLY it.  And if we have to supply all our own explanations and theology, drawn from the store of millenia of theological development that was itself based on Scripture, then the Scripture passage isn't exactly elucidating God's nature and plan for us.  It's more imposing on the reader to understand those things already.  Which, especially given that this is an epistle, offered to an original reader(s) who had the benefit of none of our modern theology, means it's not really doing its job, now is it???

I wonder what the recipients of those Pauline epistles did with them.  "All right, let's get all the chief folks together.  We'll all read the letter out loud.  Five times.  And then we'll see whether anybody has any good ideas.  And then when nobody does, we'll spend all night praying about it.  And maybe drinking - God works in mysterious ways; getting more mysterious by the minute, in fact.  And then at sunrise we'll put our heads together and decide what we're going to tell everyone it actually means.  But we can't say 'We have salvation through faith and Christ's crucifixion and this is the source of our hope and joy' again.  We said that about the last three letters.  And people are starting to notice that the letters are longer than a sentence."

I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit inspired the spirit of St. Paul's letters.  I just don't think the third person of the blessed Trinity can be fairly blamed for the sentence structure.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Terror Plantae

That's me.  The scourge of greenery.  Any hope of snow for the year now having ended, and the fires of hell set to descend upon the DC area any week now (blessedly, they have held off so far), my pestilential reign resumes.  Flowering plants shake to their very roots.  The weeds, however, are not afraid of me; lo, though I set upon them with vengeance, they are but emboldened. 

So far there is significant and plausible circumstantial evidence that I know what I'm doing.  (Do not be fooled.)  Let's start with the front.  My house has a full-width front porch with some architectural peculiarities.  In front of said porch, a previous owner planted azaleas.  If they hadn't already been there, I would have bought some to put in front of the porch.  They're the perfect choice. 

But in front of the azaleas, somebody planted lilacs.  Lilacs.  Here they are (the tall dead branch-looking things), in winter, looking innocent:


I grew up near the lilac capitol, and my mother managed to fill our tiny yard with them - and only the very nicest varieties.  (I love them all, but she was quite picky.)  I am not a lilac hater.  Let me be clear, however: lilacs do not belong in front of your front porch.  The internet claims they are "shrubs," but the internet is toying with you.  Here is a relatively mature lilac (I would guess about ten years):


(Doggy is for scale.  Not my dog; not my lilac.)  Nor do they stop there:


(Tragically, also not my house.)  I'm telling you, don't think "hedge."  Think forest.  And some nitwit planted a forest of lilacs in front of my azaleas, in front of my house. 

Neither lilacs nor azaleas are invasive species (nothing I like is.  Well, I like wisteria.  Of course I don't have any), but there is a marked difference in aggression.  The lilacs were strangling the azaleas, which barely even put up a fight.  I didn't initially realize that the offenders were lilacs - I recognized the leaves with certainty (I'm still pretty proud of that), but then they never bloomed, so I doubted my identification.  Of course, my husband had just chopped two feet off their height; never crossed my mind that that was why there were no flowers.  (Less proud of that.)  This year, however, they bloomed, cementing their identity, and I perceived a dilemma.  I had let them, and the rest of the yard, go last year because I was (you may recall) remodeling my kitchen.  But this summer, the yard has my full attention.  It was time to rescue the azaleas.  But my original bloodthirsty plans (kill the invaders!) were going to have to be modified. 

I had four six- to eight-foot lilacs, and an accompanying thicket of lilac seedlings (seriously - hundreds.  Some tall enough they were already in flower).  Had this work not been quite labor-intensive, I would have found loving homes for every seedling, but as it was, I just plowed through.  (They will throw off more seedlings; never fear.)  Two of the large lilacs I transplanted: one to form a boundary for a sort of "outdoor room" at the edge of our front yard, the other to replace one of a pair of weeping cherry trees in the back yard that had been cut down.  But that was all the places I could think of that would accommodate lilacs (remember, trees - see above), so I killed the other two.  As the lilac/azalea problem indicates, my yard is already pretty heavily planted by prior owners, and it's only a quarter of an acre to start with.  Here we are with the two right-hand lilacs (and accompanying seedlings) gone, and the left half still to go:


And here we are done:


(That huge green thing on the far left is an invasive species.  It looks woody, but it is also vining.  It is attacking the azalea on the left unmercifully.  It will have to be firmly repressed every year with a chain saw.)  And here is the transplanted lilac in the front yard:


My gardening skills are, as previously discussed, rudimentary, bordering on floricidal.  But I know what suffering lilacs look like, and I am confident these have taken the transplantation well.  Frankly, given that I was involved in the process, I'm stunned. 

I also found a tiny azalea seedling in my excavation, and transplanted it to where half an azalea had simply died off (I told you - they didn't even put up a fight).  The azaleas are all kinds of ratty, but I figure this is not the time to prune them.  I think they should get a year to heal first, and then I will neaten them up. 

In the back, I also have three long garden beds, established by the prior owners.  The soil is apparently excellent, as demonstrated by the abundant plant growth there:


Which makes for what I am telling myself is just great exercise clearing them out for plants I actually want.  But I did it!  Dug out the weeds down to the roots:


And then loosened the remaining soil, added new top soil, planted my seedlings, and added mulch (which permanently stained my fingernails.  Do not buy stained mulch.  Hint: mulch does not naturally come in black.  Yes, I am that dense).  I planted that section with bell peppers:

(And apparently a random stick.)  Here is the whole squash/pepper/eggplant/basil/oregano/surprise-already-existing-chives bed:


I bought most of these a couple of weeks ago.  I have, as noted, forbidden myself to water but for Wednesdays and Saturdays, and even then I watered the vegetables very very little (they didn't seem to want it).  They doubled in size while they sat on the porch waiting for planting.  None of them even died!  Apparently, when it comes to my demonstrative love, plants want less of it.  So right this minute, my vegetable garden looks quite successful. 

And here is my corn bed:


That's a special twilight picture. And that's all corn. (I planted four stalks, of which two immediately died, last year. Apparently the remaining two were unable to cross-pollinate, and after promising early growth, both committed suicide. This year, I am leaving nothing to chance. I planted 24 stalks.) Oh, there is one thing in there that's not a tiny baby corn stalk. I assume you can spot it. It's a large fennel plant, left over from the previous owners. No idea what I'm going to do with it - I don't really cook with fennel - but it's pretty cool and I didn't want to kill it off. (Suggestions welcome, by the way.)  The whole setup:


The third, left-most bed I have not planted, because I am germinating zinnia and sunflower seeds to go in there.  (They go in after it gets warmer, or they germinate, or, ideally, both.)  I also plan to plant Oriental lilies and freesia in there, which are bulbs and probably could go in now, but the store hasn't got the freesia in yet, so I figure I might as well wait for the seeds to come up and clear the whole bed in one shot.  This bed isn't ornamental; I figure since it's a third raised bed, it will look reasonable to use it for harvest.  I have ludicrous dreams of vases full of fresh-cut flowers brightening my house all summer.  Stay tuned on that. 

And finally, because this is not enough work, I (possibly we) are digging a new bed, around the old oak tree.  I have already marked its shape with spray-paint:


And here maybe you can get an idea of what that area will look like:


This, too, was my DH's idea.  A small statue of Mary sits under the oak tree (in the slight indentation.  She was moved in anticipation of digging, which has not yet happened), and he thought it might be nice to have a bed there with some flowers.  Of course, my idea for a bed immediately transmogrified into planting flowers that are not around Mary (partly because the statue isn't very tall, and a lot of flowers would dwarf it.  Though I do plan to move some crocuses and daffodils out of random places in the lawn and put them there).  I'm planning on a row of gladioli and lavender extending from the tree to the driveway, along the long axis of my egg-shaped area.  That will give me another "outdoor room" - it will visually mark off the square of lawn next to the house.  That's where we already put our outdoor furniture anyway, and I am planning to dig a fire pit (to be lined with brick) in the middle of that area. 

I like the visual effect of "outdoor rooms," but I am not even going to attempt the level of effort and expense I see recommended in shiny photos.  So I am hoping that a few modest delineations here and there will give me the desired effect.  The yard is already pretty well chopped up by the driveway, some fencing, the raised beds, a grape arbor, a clothes line, the house, and the carriage house, so I figure it must just need a little bit more demarcation (and some pretty blossoms) to rocket it to magazine-worthy beauty. 

There's no need to tell me that these efforts wouldn't be enough to rival Martha Stewart, because these efforts won't be successful in the first place.  By June my plants will be worrying me.  By the beginning of July, the massacre will have set in.  And by August, the carnage will be appalling.  But I wanted to document this stage, because I don't think people really believe I could be as bad with plants as I say I am.  I am, however, quite serious.  Set the scene in your mind: it's that idyllic opening coffee-shop sequence in Children of the Corn.  But just you wait.  And this time, corn - it's your turn.